Malcolm Bedell is looking for support from the community to help him launch 'Wich, Please, a sandwich food truck with a name that will be as awkward to explain to children as Muthah Truckah or Rolling Fatties (which is currently Kickstarting a take-out joint). He intends to sell sandwiches year-round in Rockland, beginning next April. His Kickstarter campaign has 22 days remaining and has already raised almost $12,000 of its $25,000 goal. The push has even been chosen as a Kickstarter Staff Pick.
Bedell and his wife Jillian write the long-running Maine food blog From Away. In November, he will also compete for the second time in the sandwich category of the World Food Championships. In an email interview, Bedell explained why he thinks Rockland can support a year-round food truck, why he chose to crowdsource funding, and what led him to the precipice of food truck ownership.
Why Rockland? Many food trucks in the Portland area don't operate year round. What makes you feel that it's possible in the midcoast? Is there any particular competition/inspiration you see for what you want to do in Rockland, or do you feel that it's a niche you'll be filling?
I spent 2013 working at Dream Local Digital, right on Main street, and learned pretty quickly how few options there are for lunch, once you rule out full-service, sit-down restaurants, which I rarely had time for. Most days, I found myself at Clan MacLaren, an excellent sandwich shop in town that focuses mostly on upscale variations of Italian sandwiches, or Thorndike Creamery, an ice cream shop that happens to spin out some of my favorite pizza in all of Maine.
Unlike a traditional restaurant, I imagine our truck aligning much more closely in spirit to Wasses Hot Dogs, where I have been eating since I was five years old. While we could never hope to produce anything as singularly perfect as the hot dogs they make every single day, I think my philosophy will be similar: Make just a few things. Make them as delicious as you can. Make them affordable. Wasses does this, and their reward is a fiercely loyal customer base that eats there year round, even if they have to huddle in their cars with the heat cranked up in order to do so.
While I understand the "smash and grab" nature of trying to appeal broadly to the massive amount of tourism dollars that float through the area each summer, and while I understand that for some businesses, staying open only seasonally makes sense, it's really important to me to stay open through the winter. I think it's a way to show solidarity with your customers, to show them that you are an integrated part of their lives, sharing their experiences. Sure, Maine is a little less fun when you're trying to dig your car out, or depositing your paychecks directly into your heating oil tank, but that's a big part of life here. And when you're done battling the horrors of a Maine winter, you're probably going to want a grilled cheese sandwich with a lamb chili sidecar.
The other motivation for choosing Rockland, instead of a larger city like Portland? Rockland is home. I grew up nearby in Tenants Harbor, and graduated from high school in Thomaston. Your community is a big part of launching a business like this, both in terms of the support you receive and the business ecosystem you ultimately want to contribute to. I love the Midcoast, and I couldn't imagine trying to make this business succeed anywhere else.
Do you know what kind of sandwich you'll enter into the World Food Championships this year?
I'm still working on it. For the first round, I'm thinking about doing an old-school Maine lobster roll, and making every element simple and perfect. Last year, I think I could've done better if I hadn't strayed so far from my roots; I made a sandwich I called a "Torta Yucateca," which involved pressure-cooking an orange-and-achiote pork shoulder to make carnitas in just 20 minutes. A torta seemed exotic and difficult enough to get some attention, but I forgot that I would be serving it in a place where tortas are sold at every corner deli, they're amazing, and they cost $2. My version was just more overwrought noise.
After finishing 13th overall last year, I was lucky to be invited back to compete again this year with all expenses paid. I'm looking forward to taking another shot at the title.
You say it's time to "dive into the food world with both feet. It's time to stop endlessly writing and talking about food, and actually start making and serving it. Full-time." Was this always your goal?
Not even a little. It's tempting for us to look back and think we had some kind of master plan when we started From Away, but honestly, we were just trying to use frozen burritos as a way to try and be funny on the internet. That was it. The rest of what's happened, in terms opportunities, has evolved totally organically.
Can you elaborate on what led ultimately to this new goal?
I think any time you love and explore something to the point of obsession, whether it's craft beer or arctic windsurfing or sandwiches, your natural urge is to transition from someone who comments on that thing, to someone who becomes a part of that thing.
You can see that progression happening in the pages of our blog; nearly 1,000 posts ago, we started with this notion that we would try and document our exploration of why we loved the foods we loved, learn how to make them exactly the way we wanted, figure out how to photograph them at least somewhat capably, while hopefully finding a way to tell a story at the same time. In that sense, we started making food for the public a long time ago. We'd develop a recipe, photograph it, and then put it out into the world electronically for other people to recreate and comment on it.
Over time, the process of getting our food out into the world became more and more direct. We had Eating in Maine published by Tilbury House. We'd enter our recipes in contests for national judging. I started doing some live competitions and cooking appearances. More and more, I've been taking an increasingly direct approach to having people taste the food I make, cutting out the electronic middleman, and finding tremendous satisfaction along the way.
I've devoted probably somewhere around half a million words to describing the intimate details of the insides of bacon-flavored Toaster Strudels; a shift away from the keyboard and into the terrifying realities of my own mobile kitchen seems like a career change that's arriving in the nick of time.
I'll continue writing the blog, as will Jillian and Kasey. The focus of many of my posts will probably change, as I document the process of getting this thing off the ground, and then share some of my challenges (and hopefully victories!) day-to-day.
If, as you say, you don't know how to run a business, have you considered getting a restaurant job to learn the ropes? What convinced you to open your own business instead?
It's not running a business I'm concerned about; specifically, it's running a restaurant. That's a huge business that I flat-out don't even begin to understand the intricacies of. In fact, that's why there's fewer and fewer traditional "reviews" on From Away these days...there's so much that goes into a restaurant's success that I'll never understand, and that seems only sometimes related to the quality of food you're producing.
I could never imagine renovating a space, buying the equipment, handling staff, keeping up with inventory. It's too big. It seems to require an avalanche of cash and a truckload of confidence, both of which you could have stripped away from you at any moment.
Standing in a concession trailer by myself, slinging sandwiches out the window? It's a business that has a scale that I can understand. Maybe it becomes the proving ground for a future brick-and-mortar project? I'm not sure. I'm taking this whole thing one step at a time.
Why Kickstarter rather than private investors?
One of the benefits to raising money using crowdfunding is the immediate, real-time feedback for your idea. With a bank or a private investor, you have to try to sell your idea based purely on its financial merits; passion and heart are difficult to quantify in a business plan. With Kickstarter, you appeal directly to the community you want to serve. If they think the idea is good, they'll move heaven and earth to make it happen. If your idea is met with a gigantic yawn, it's a sign that maybe you should work on coming up with a new idea. So far, the members of my community have been extremely encouraging and supportive.
I also worry about the role a private investor would play in the day-to-day decision-making regarding the business. When my business succeeds or fails, I want to know that it's because of the decisions I made; I don't ever want to be someone who says, "Yeah, and the whole thing could've really been a hit, if only I had been allowed to spend a dollar more per pound on ham," or, "I can't believe I let the backers steamroll me into putting mayonnaise sliders on the menu." Although those sound kind of good.
The million dollar (or in this case, $25,000) question: Is there a back-up plan if for some reason the campaign is unsuccessful?
Nope. If we don't meet our campaign goal, it's back to writing about frozen burritos.